The East Ayrshire Schools Story
Back in the early 2000’s the Healthy Choices Award Scheme was an interesting initiative aimed at improving food options in schools and workplaces. Nowadays it seems increasingly aimed at large corporations and contract caterers; emphasising food trends that aren’t in line with mine such as ultra-processed vegetarian products and spreads, along with reformulations of manufactured foods… I rest my case. But in the early days its intentions were generally more based on natural foods and I stepped in to assist inspections when a member of the team was on maternity leave. Through this random call I was assigned East Ayrshire as part of my remit and had the privilege to meet Robin Gourlay, Head of Services at East Ayrshire Council at that pivotal moment.
Like me, Robin is a believer in we are what we eat and the benefits good wholesome food bring to overall health and the brain development of the young. He was devoted to guiding students, both through good quality homemade school meals and through food education. I like to think he recognised a kindred spirit in me and before long he had hired me to collaborate with him on East Ayrshire School meals, the start of a long friendship and mutual respect, creating a team of cooks and producers going forward for future generations of schoolchildren.[His cooks pictured at Royal Highland Show 2013].
We planned menus and both investigated the local producers out there: from cheese to bakeries, fishmongers, butchers, fruit and vegetables and egg producers. They visited the schools, spoke first to us then later on to the students and bonds were formed, some of which last to this day. In those early days we were working to a common goal and developing criteria. About the same time Pam Rodway was working on a similar project in parallel with the Soil Association, still embryonic, named Food For Life. I knew Pam through Slow Food and it seemed a logical progression to link with the new programme, with its roots in organics, than to spend time developing our own and so it was East Ayrshire became one of the pioneers of Food for Life. In her capacity of co-ordinating various adherents at that time, Pam was kept in the loop and advised of our progress as Robin and I forged on with menu developments, staff training and producer links. Both Robin and I were already very involved in the Slow Food Movement and to this day we keep in touch.
Over the many years we collaborated on his school meals initiative there were some memorable moments, some of which I have never recounted before but share with great affection…
In an effort to make school meals more fun as well as more nourishing, one of my dafter moments was shark-infested mince! The premise being to hide a range of diced vegetables in good local mince then top with a triangle of wholemeal toast (the shark fin) at point of service as a humorous distraction. When attending an early conference on school meals, where literally hundreds of caterers were present, I was in a ladies room cubicle when I heard two catering managers (from other regions) discussing the shark-invested mince recipe with a vigour that was not altogether complimentary. I smiled quietly…
A parent called to give Robin an earful that his son was being fed peas and we handled it by saying how wonderful, isn’t it – colourful, juicy and a real adventure for him! We were determined to change hearts and minds. I held many cookery demos for parents to show them the recipes and allow them to taste the school dishes. I also ran cook-ins in the summer holidays for over 50 of Robin’s catering staff – before Jamie Oliver’s claim to fame – where we cooked all the new dishes for the menus. His regional supervisors were fantastic, in particular the staff at Hurlford Primary, our trial trailblazer. It could be a rocky road at times for Robin, as I mix my metaphors we were swimming upstream when no–one else was but he navigated bureaucracy and was determined to prove them wrong – and he did!
In 2005 East Ayrshire won the Soil Association Food for Life School of the Year and collected the award from Jamie Oliver. I was honoured to be invited along and join in the festivities. Robin was later seconded to the Scottish Government to roll out future avenues for procurement to ease the processes for small producers to enable their participation. His work has been truly ground-breaking. It’s been a long journey and Food for Life is now rolled out across many Scottish regions - hopefully all will join this ethical initiative as they should. Hurlford has been used as an exemplar across the world at Slow Food Terra Madre [pictured at bottom of blog] and other international events and conferences.
In 2005 we had a Royal Visit from HRH Prince Charles and his then fiancé the Duchess of Rothesay. It was a great success that could be measured in that they were an hour late for their next port of call. We had all been at the school since early morn and also been briefed on Royal protocol. During their visit they ate lunch among the Hurlford students – including my broccoli tree bake recipe – and met producers and staff. All the cooks had changed into newly-laundered uniforms before their arrival and HRH Prince Charles commented on one dinner lady’s smart appearance at which point all protocol went out the window as she uttered the immortal words, “You should have seen us half an hour ago!” Suffice to say you could see they thoroughly enjoyed themselves among the good folk of Ayrshire!
The challenge will be to ensure our early mission of local unprocessed school meals isn’t diluted by using larger operations or contract caterers. Bigger isn’t necessarily better and smaller producers can work highly successfully in rural areas for the benefit of both the family business, pupils and the economy of the community. Other threats include the trend towards bulk cooking, the reduction in meat and the lack of school kitchens. Whole local milk, regeneratively-farmed meats and local unprocessed foods are at the heart of East Ayrshire and hopefully will remain so and set the standard across Scotland. You will see Robin's Terra Madre slide was entitled Good Food Nation in 2014 and we are still striving across Scotland in 2022 - I hope we get there soon! For now, I sit on the Food for Life Standards Committee and I shall always fondly remember my days in East Ayrshire.
Wendy & Bosse’s book, “Meadows: The Swedish Farmer & The Scottish Cook” is on sale now at selected farm shops, follow this link.